Chana opens the front door to look up at the ancient elm, hoping the storks have returned, but the nest is empty. Instead she is alarmed to see a cloud of dust in the distance. She hears the clatter of hooves on cobblestones. Minutes later, a mounted soldier enters the narrow dirt road that leads from the market to their house and beyond to the cemetery along the river, where the storks must be feeding now. The horse pulls up abruptly in front of her, its flanks heaving. The man wears the light gray uniform of a Polish cavalry officer, his cocked hat adorned with a tricolor ribbon. He is young and earnest with an impressive mustachio.
“Is this the home of Rebbe Dovid Biderman the tzaddik?” he asks in heavily accented Yiddish.
“So it is, God be thanked,” she replies in Polish.
He smiles. “You are Pani Biderman, yes? I am Lieutenant Major Anton Lubienski. I require an audience with the esteemed Seer of Lelov.”
She hesitates. “I cannot disturb the evening prayers.”
“Please, it is a matter of great urgency.”
“No one may interrupt his discourse with the divine,” she says, frowning.
“Of course not, but may I see him as soon as possible?”
“What is your great haste?”
He dismounts and lowers his voice.
“I can only say that in a few hours he will be visited by a very high official. Anything else is for his ears alone.”
She nods. “He may grant you an audience after sundown, though I cannot guarantee it.”
“Where can I stable and feed my horse, meanwhile?”
She points down the street toward the river. “The large gray shed at the end.”
He turns to go, then stops and faces her again. “I have long wanted to meet the rebbe,” he says almost tenderly. “My mother told me his blessing is the reason I exist.”
“Who is your mother, young man?”
“Countess Elzbieta Lubienskaya.”
She regards him thoughtfully. “Stable your horse and come right back. You’ll need food and drink, yourself.”
Chana reflects meanwhile upon the joys and sorrows of matrimony.
Seven children still alive, two dead in infancy, alleva shalom. At least two dozen grandchildren, she’s lost count.
She is a pious woman married to a saint. Their marital bed is as close as she’ll ever come to understanding the ecstatic joy of the communal prayers she listens to through a closed door.
“You are the embodiment of the Shechinah, the bride of Elohim,” her husband still reminds her most nights, though they are older and feebler now. But carnal pleasure does not suffice. When he cries out in his sleep in a voice suffused with love and yearning she knows he longs for union with the Holy One.
When she was a young, naïve bride she wondered why a tzaddik’s wife would not be permitted to join in the mystical devotions of his followers. “Are we not all embodiments of Shechinah?” she asked him. “All the men and women and children, too? What about the trees and birds and cows and horses?”
He had instructed her gently. “What a pagan you are,” he’d teased.
She learned of the false messiah Sabbatai Levi and his alleged reincarnation Jakub Frank, in whose kabbalistic sect men and women worshipped together. Hounded and persecuted, Sabbati wound up converting to Islam and Frank, to Christianity. The goyim, too, viewed Frank with suspicion. He’d been imprisoned in the nearby monastery of Cz?stochowa for thirteen years.
“I want to fill our people with the joy of God, not with rage against their own,” he told her.
My husband gives any groszy that comes his way to people even poorer than we. He brims with love and compassion, especially for children and animals, and even for brutish transgressors. The first miracle was he’d not been swallowed up by the world and spit out in pieces. Other miracles followed, small and large.
Women who were barren bore children, blessed be Elohim. The countess was one such, bewigged and bejeweled, down on her knees with clasped hands in that small dark room. Only when women came into his study was I permitted to witness my husband’s connection with the divine, the devkurut. He thought it fitting then for me to partake and assist. When he gestured for the countess to get off the floor and sit in a chair, I helped her up. I brought her a cup of tea. She sipped it eagerly, as if it were a magic potion, and the hand that held the cup trembled. Her face was pale white with a hectic flush in her cheeks.
She told me that if she could not produce a child, her marriage would be annulled.
I prayed alongside Dovid, focusing on the holy letters as he’d taught me. They glimmered, as always, in my mind’s eye, elusive as minnows in the river. The countess watched us both in wonderment. But I shouldn’t have noticed her watching. I should have been transported like Dovid to a higher realm, if I truly wanted to help her.
Some twenty years later here is her much desired son knocking at our door. I played a small role in his creation, did I not? I invite him into the kitchen to wait for the evening prayers to conclude.
I light a fresh candle and put it on the table next to a steaming cup of tea and our best, albeit cracked, china plate with two slices of dark buttered rye bread and a small piece of cheese.
His skin is pale like his mother’s, his hair flaxen. He wipes his forehead with the back of one hand and thanks me. I think he might be perspiring from every pore. He looks around the kitchen at our simple furniture, the walls bare of décor, and he anxiously studies the floor, which is hard-packed dirt covered with reed mats.
Now that we are not out on the street talking, he tells me who will be visiting and why. It is no wonder he is so nervous.
Thanks to his mother’s influence, Anton is aide-de-camp to Prince Józef Poniatowski, Commander of the Polish Vistula Legion under the French emperor. I can imagine his mother’s delight when she reads his letters describing the splendid banquets in Dresden. There he sat at a long table with their Imperial Majesties Napoleon and Marie Louise, along with a bevy of other royals subject to the imperial crown, in the palace of the King of Saxony.
“After the feasts, there were diplomatic negotiations every night until dawn,” he explains. The women left the banquet hall and the men drank cognac and smoked cigars. Though no one ever said so, it was clear to Anton that the emperor was uneasy. He’d rather negotiate with the Tsar than fight him. No one knew exactly what Napoleon planned to do next.
To lighten his master’s mood, Anton mentioned the Seer of Lublin and other mystical tzaddikem of les Juifs. Most westerly and closest to the emperor’s projected route was the very rebbe whose intercession Anton’s mother had sought.
“I told him I’m the living proof of the rebbe’s powers.” He exhales a long sigh. “Perhaps I had one cognac too many.”
Before he could grasp what was happening, Anton was dispatched on this mission to arrange an appointment with the Seer of Lelov, with the emperor’s abbreviated entourage only a few hours behind him.
Anton also told Napoleon the Lelover rebbe is renowned for telling the future.
“I don’t know why I said that. Can he really predict the future?”
“Some people think so,” I say, and yearn to offer more. Except for the blond hair, he is much like my youngest boy, eager and impulsive with a lively mind.
“But what if he can only predict the future of crops or the prosperity of offspring?” He looks downcast. “That is not what concerns the emperor.”
I don’t know how to comfort him, other than to pour another cup of tea.
From down the hall we hear the wails and moans of prayer crescendo. In a while, a door opens and several men bid Dovid good night. Wearing long black cloth garments and saucer-shaped fur hats, they file by the kitchen, eyes averted.
I excuse myself and go into the hall to wait for my husband and let him know we have a guest.
Rebbe Dovid strides into the kitchen beaming. He has a flowing white beard, a face creased with wrinkles. His eyes are kindly, welcoming.
The old woman bids them good evening and disappears into another part of the house.
Anton explains his mission.
“I hope this is no imposition, sir. I am myself under orders, but you are not obliged.” Anton stumbles. He hadn’t meant to make such fine distinctions, only to guarantee an audience with the emperor and notify his mother’s benefactor of impending peril.
“I should hope for a positive forecast,” he tells the rebbe guardedly. “His Highness is notoriously quick-tempered.”
The rebbe shrugs. “I am but a vessel for the Word.”
A new moon scarcely lights the town when a one-horse gig accompanied by two mounted soldiers clatter past the ruins of the old city wall toward the tzaddik’s home. The village is mostly dark by now, but candles appear in a few windows and curious neighbors peer out. In their nest high atop the old elm, the storks stretch and flutter their wings.
A passenger climbs down from the carriage and waddles into the rebbe’s house, belly prominent, the saber on his hip almost as tall as he is. He too is wearing a Polish cavalry uniform with a long, gray cloak over his shoulders and head.
Chana stands quietly to one side, wiping her hands on an apron and wondering if one serves tea to an emperor. Anton and the other soldier follow close behind.
The rebbe is seated at a small desk piled with books and manuscripts. He does not stand when the visitors enter the study.
Chana isn’t sure what to do next and looks to her husband for a signal. Should she stay or absent herself from this audience?
She is pleased when Dovid puts up a hand, meaning stay.
It is only for genuine mystical communion, his true passion, that he requires the energy of devoted male followers. The so-called miracles are of a lesser order, verging on mundane. It is his service to the visible world and thus hers as well.
An awkward silence is broken by Anton, who announces their guest as the Liberator of Poland and Emperor of the French.
“I am honored,” the rebbe says. “Please have a seat.”
The aide rushes up with a chair and the emperor sits on the edge of it, staring intently at the alleged prophet and miracle-worker. He speaks quickly and quietly in a staccato French that neither the rebbe nor his wife understand. The room is otherwise silent, everyone’s attention focused absolutely on the little dark-haired man who seems coiled like a spring.
Anton translates into Polish. “I hope you deserve your reputation as a prophet, since I have journeyed out of my way to seek your counsel. I will reward you handsomely.”
The rebbe demurs. “I do not require compensation.”
The emperor looks around the room, frowns. “Your home could be made more comfortable. It is not welcoming.”
Chana thinks this remark ill suits Napoleon’s station. In her limited experience with the gentry, she has not yet encountered rudeness. She notes Anton’s discomfort. He may be the sole hereditary noble in the room.
Now the emperor talks about an anticipated war and the eventual liberation of Poland from Russia. Rumors have reached even the women in this shtetl of a huge multi-pronged army forming to the north. She thinks it likely that only Anton still believes in the ideals of the Revolution, for which the Grand Armée will allegedly be battling.
War is never a good idea, Chana is certain. Dovid, a gentle, bookish man, cannot or will not intercede with the Holy One on behalf of military or political ventures. But intercession is not what is desired.
“Should I march on Moscow?” the emperor asks, point blank.
Is the future foreordained? Can it ever be altered?
She prays at length with her husband for guidance. Even before he opens his eyes, two dark grieving pools, she feels the weight of his sorrow. She senses rather than sees the shadow over Anton.
“Do not go to Moscow,” the tzaddik says at last.
Anton repeats this in French.
The emperor draws himself up to his full height and glares at them.
“What is it you see?” he demands.
But Dovid shakes his head. “Nothing, I see nothing.”
“On what then do you base your advice to me?”
“The heavens are weeping.”
The emperor snorts. He barks out orders.
“You’d best pray that you are wrong,” Anton murmurs. “His Highness is not pleased.”
The entourage leaves as quickly as it came. Afterward it seems like a dream. Chana is up most of the night, sleepless and bewildered, while her husband sleeps as if dead. He has exhausted his reserves, she fears, with whatever dread vision seized him, and which in the end will likely make no difference to the course of events. If he is right, as usually he is, what will befall them? What will happen to that army? To Anton?
With the light of dawn, she gets out of bed and opens the shutters in the kitchen. She watches the two storks soar upward together toward the sun. That huge nest has been in the tree since before she was a girl and continuously occupied. L’chaim, she prays silently, to life. May there always be storks in Poland.
Autumn storms, following a scorching hot summer, turn the fields and roads to muddy quagmires. The harvest is poor. When the first ragged and exhausted soldiers limp through Lelov, Chana’s forebodings are confirmed. These are the lucky ones, she learns. The Grand Armée has been decimated by hunger, disease, frost.
Deep into winter after the storks and their fledglings are long gone, an Imperial two-horse carriage appears outside their home, again after nightfall. The emperor remains seated, while an aide pounds on their door.
He is a gaunt, young Polish officer with haunted eyes, holding a deep-red, gold-embroidered cloak that he presents to Chana. Inside the carriage she sees the emperor, his ghost-white face in shadows, staring straight ahead, peering perhaps into his future.
The officer explains His Majesty wants the tzaddik to know he was right about Moscow. The cloak is a gift in lieu of the compensation he’d previously refused. In another minute, the carriage has vanished into the night.
She brings the ankle-length cloak to her husband’s study and waits, as he is immersed in Talmudic commentary. He looks up startled.
“What shall we do with it?” she asks. It is luxurious velvet, the color of blood. It is not appropriate for clothing or curtains. It can’t be ignored.
“An emperor’s cloak,” he murmurs. “The Holy One must have His reasons.”
“Perhaps to remind us of the evil of war,” she suggests. She is thinking about Countess Lubienskaya whose son succumbed to typhus on the march to Moscow. Chana, too, grieves this terrible loss, the beautiful young life snuffed out.
Might the cloak somehow comfort the countess?
As if reading her mind, her husband says “Our duty is to learn its purpose here in our home or shul.”
She considers this. A bold idea occurs to her. She hesitates, plunges ahead.
“Its purpose could be a Torah mantel. The old cloth cover is wearing thin.”
He strokes his beard, considering. “Some might object to the cloak’s origins,” he says.
“Cloaks preserve us from harm,” she counters. She runs one hand over the fabric, inspired. “It could remind us of the radiance of Schechinah.”
“And the futility of pride,” he adds, thoughtfully.
“I will sew the most beautiful mantel ever,” she promises him, and when he nods approval, is seized abruptly by inexplicable joy.
Jo-Anne Rosen’s fiction has appeared over two dozen literary journals (e.g., The Florida Review, The Summerset Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Pithead Chapel). She is a book and web designer living in Petaluma, California. What They Don’t Know (2015) is her first fiction collection. She also publishes an online literary journal at www.echapbook.com and is co-editor of the Sonoma County Literary Update. See www.joannerosen.us for more information.
“The Emperor’s Cloak” was inspired by a recent visit to Poland where she learned that her 4th great-grandfather was a Hasidic rabbi who, legend has it, was consulted by Napoleon.